It is not just “a feather in her hair”

Not too long ago, Rick Riordan, author of the popular Percy Jackson series, posted a blog about a character, Piper McClean, who is “part Cherokee”. The reason he wrote the blog was in response to backlash over the representation of the Cherokee character and the feathers that she wore in her hair.

By the end of the blog, it seems that there were four feathers total, one was an eagle feather, two were white, but were still “probably” eagle feathers, and a one that was blue that wasn’t an eagle feather.

From QRT (quoted re-tweets for the non-Twitter users) of his initial tweet, you will see a smattering of different views and really, you can tell which are by Indigenous people and which are not.

Before we get into Rick’s argument that he is respecting Cherokee people and culture, we’re going to look at two names for some perspective.

JK Rowling and Stephen King.

For many Natives, those two names might elicit a groan of disdain. For those who aren’t aware, both authors have taken pan-Indian culture and/or outright bastardized Native cultures for their personal whims and gains in their stories. Both authors are quite famous and wealthy. No, neither made their fortunes on our culture and bones, but you can’t argue that they haven’t profited off of stereotypes for our peoples and cultures for some of their stories either. Unapologetic insofar as I know.

A little on Stephen King. I grew up reading Stephen King. The first book that my mother started reading to me when we were homeless and living in the basement of a Catholic covenant was Firestarter. There is a character in the book named John Rainbird. John Rainbird also happens to be Cherokee as well as an assassin for the government. I would LOVE to know the inspiration behind this particular backstory, but that’s a tale for another day.

Even as a child, I was stoked to hear about a Native character being included in a book. Given that he’s an assassin, it wasn’t exactly my dream to follow in those footsteps, but as a child, I felt that we were being seen. Ma never explained to me the complexities of having a Native character represented in such a fashion when I was a child. I figured that part out for myself when I was an adult.

JK Rowling made her name with the Harry Potter series that became a hugely successful movie franchise. Then came “History of Magic in North America”, which relies heavily on appropriation of living cultures to justify a whole fake world. The backlash was immediate. JKR blocked numerous Native accounts, seemingly to avoid accountability. To this day, I don’t think she’s ever addressed the controversy in a positive manner toward any Native. Her books and perspectives are geared toward young adults as well and she’s used that platform and privilege without respect for a whole lot of Native tribes.

Hell, one of our favorite television cartoons as children were the Paw Paw Bears – if you have never seen it, check out videos on YouTube sometime. As an adult, part of me wants to shake my ma and demand to know why she let that fly.

The answer is pretty simple, really. When you’re a kid, some deeper conversations are best left to when one is older. Some things aren’t as easily processed as a child – but she did open the door for education. One of the first lessons that I remember about appropriation was Cher. We’ll open that Pandora’s box in an upcoming article.

There are also generational differences in how we share culture and educate about appropriation with our youth. Ma let us grow into teens before delving deeper into a great many issues. Although both of my sons have learning disabilities, I have pushed them from a young age to watch and be aware of what appropriation looks like and not to perpetuate it.

While it may seem like it has nothing to do with the issue of a Native character written by a white person, or any non-Native, it should be noted that Natives couldn’t even legally practice our own cultures openly until 1978 after the passage of the The American Indian Religious Freedom Act. That’s after I was born.

The way Natives have been portrayed in books and movies has relied largely on stereotype and whitewashed ideas of our many and diverse cultures. When Natives are consulted, the results are mixed at best and at times, disastrous. Remember Johnny Depp and Dior’s “Sauvage” campaign that relied largely on stereotypical imagery? Despite the group “Americans for Indian Opportunity” being consulted for part of the advertising campaign. The Dior launch party had many a white woman in a headdress among many other offensive elements.

To this day, plenty of people will claim that the Washington r-slur’s name honors Native Americans, or that ‘it’s never been a big deal till now’. It’s always been a big deal to us; just because non-Natives aren’t aware of it does not mean that we haven’t been protesting appropriation and racism since the violent beginnings of this country.

What’s this have to do with Rick being called out for appropriation?

Before the Internet and social media, our voices were easily buried and dismissed. By the same token, we are now also so much more easily accessible because of the digital world. There is zero excuse to not have approached the tribe that you wanted to represent to find a group for which to have respectful dialogue with. Academic research only goes so far. Thinking of any of our cultures in only academic terms is not going to reflect respectful representation.

There are definitely ways to incorporate a Native character without their Indigeneity being the focus, a prop, or a fetish, as well as not needing to specify certain cultural aspects unless it’s a direct necessity to the moment.

There are also other larger aspects to consider that it seems that Rick has not come close to considering. It is this:

As a white person sharing a story meant for young adults, you are inadvertently (or intentionally) giving non-Natives a “pass” on what they perceive as representative of a culture. Young adults, even Native youth, are going to read these words and assume some of it is true or focus on aspects that appeal to them that may not necessarily be true.

In this case, a feather or feathers isn’t so much the focus as the act of making a creative call for the sake of a story and after the fact expecting some kind of pat on the back for effort. Focusing specifically on the feather in the hair and Cherokee heritage attempts to discourage the rest of us from weighing in and I won’t speak on any aspect of Cherokee culture. But I will definitely point out that the effort of research for respectful representation was woefully inadequate and Rick has an opportunity to rectify that from this point on. Focusing on the feathers in the character’s hair also deflects from the responsibility that Rick had way before all of this in fumbling his research. Now there are Cherokee citizens who might have felt pressured to weigh in on whether or not it’s respectful, thus putting the burden of acceptance on Native people rather than the person who screwed up to begin with.

There should be no stories about us without us. You don’t need 100% of the people agreeing on every little aspect, but you do need to know where you will potentially cause issues. At that point, you can make the judgment call.

For myself, the one thing that has me squeamish is the fact that this character is not of a culture that would typically have feathers in their hair. If you go through his ‘research’, it comes off like he went back after the fact to try and find points of historic documents to justify the feathers rather than having found an abundance of proof from the get go. In the course of Rick’s blog, she went from one to four feathers in her hair. At some point, someone is going to cosplay this with a headdress because “feathers”.

‘But I didn’t write that!’ one might argue; no, RIck didn’t explicitly write it, but he is opening the door. In just the last couple of years in Twitter, I have seen more fake Cherokee pop up with fake headdresses than any other claimed tribe, including Plains tribes who actually have them as part of our culture.

I can call ignorance as ignorance once. After that, it’s deliberate.

Let’s look at this statement from Rick’s post:

“You have to be the judge of whether or not I did well enough and was mindful enough of Piper’s heritage.”

I haven’t even read the books and I know enough to say that no, you did not. Details following.

“Thankfully, the vast majority of feedback I’ve gotten about Piper from young Native/Indigenous readers over the years has been extremely positive.”

Yeah, the Washington r-slurs have been beating us over the head over a bunch of self-proclaimed Natives excusing their name as justification for it. The voices of non-Natives do not matter on Indigenous issues. No one gets to dictate to us how we should feel about the issues that affect us. Plenty of non-Natives will come out of the woodwork to claim to be Native and have zero lived experience as a Native, let alone understand the culture and history of whatever tribe(s) that they’re claiming. It’s just ‘something cool’ to say. I wonder how much of that general feedback starts off as, “I’m Native and not offended” or “I’m part Cherokee and not offended”.

“…because young Native kids…”

As a parent to two young Native men, I would appreciate you not throwing Native youth under the bus like your representation of a character is their fault because they supposedly asked for it. Youth might be a starting point, but youth aren’t the ones who would be educating you. Claiming to listen to Native youth in this way further suggests laziness in research and development since you could make time to listen to a request, but not make time to actually learn about any one culture enough to give it the proper respect.

This also goes back to the differences in education in upbringing. There is no way that I would let my children watch a show like the Paw Paw Bears today. I am surprised that my ma let us watch it when it’s a mess of appropriation and misrepresentation. It should also be noted, however, that my parent’s generation are also survivors of boarding schools, residential schools and cultural genocide. Our parents couldn’t even openly practice our cultures.

“…she would say, To Hades with it. I don’t care what you think. I’m Cherokee and I’m going to express that however I want.”

…said every 23 and me pretendian when they get back their DNA results. I would not immediately term Piper a pretendian, even as a character. But how Rick says that she’d say or think about expressing herself however she wants is called white entitlement. White people think and say that. They follow through with it too – see above about fake Cherokee wearing fake headdresses.

Here’s another one who expressed a 1/14 claim to being Cherokee by posing with a horse and a fake headdress.

Here’s another who broke her parents down by weird percentages to claim Cherokee.

Yet another one who not only inked a headdress on a white person, but she socked the head of a cheetah on top for good measure. This horrifying example of ink is forever.

In conclusion, it’s fine to claim to have done the research. From a white perspective, it’s probably good enough. From a Native perspective, it was pretty shallow and ill thought out. If Rick spent some time seeing what we combat on a daily basis, how easy it is for non-Natives to claim to be Native, speak over us, appropriate our cultures, bastardize sacred items, wear dead Natives in headdresses because scalping is frowned upon, then perhaps he’d better understand the reason why many Natives would be upset about his fairly cavalier attitude about writing a Native character in a way that does not respect that character’s living culture.

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